Authenticity, Reenactorisms, And Fantasy- A Reconsideration

The subject of historical authenticity is a hot-button issue in recreating historical fashions and it seems that hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a question on this issue. It’s been awhile since we first wrote this post and during that time we’ve constantly re-assessed our position. Furthermore, during this time of enforced isolation, we’ve had a lot of time to consider this issue and in the end, our position hasn’t changed much except perhaps we’ve tried to be open to new ideas and be receptive to change. So without further ado, let’s proceed… 🙂


One of the most frustrating aspects of working with historic costume is when we encounter garments, hats, or other costume items whose creators adamantly insist that they are historically correct when clearly that is not the case. In these situations, one’s social skills are put to the test and while we want to scream “you are clearly wrong!”, our polite response is “That’s nice,” “Wow, that really shows some effort,” or “You look really pretty today.” Kindness wins.

Trying to get things right- studying original garments is part of the game…

While we naturally applaud those who go to the time and effort to create some amazing designs, we also take an exception to those who create “historical” fashions but have clearly done little or no research on their own. We could go on for days finding numerous examples on the internet and then ravaging them for their lapses in historical accuracy but ultimately it’s cruel and counterproductive.

Is it wrong? Is it right? Choices have to be made and sometimes without the benefit of perfect information.

Counterproductive? But shouldn’t one constantly be on guard against the historically inaccurate? Yes and no. For us, the bigger issue is: “are we on the clock?” For example, if we are working on a film where we are being paid to provide historically accurate wardrobe (or as historically accurate as the production designer, director and budget will allow), of course we will act in a swift and sure manner to preserve the integrity of the production.

Trying to beat the clock… 3 am at the atelier…

Being “on the clock” also applies to our historical designs. If there are deviations from what is historically accurate, we are up-front about them. In some instances, we have had to make concessions to modernity due to availability of materials, client preferences, etc. Unfortunately, modern realities are part of recreating historical fashion and in some instances they can not be avoided. In the end, we are not paid to be the “costume police” and it’s a role we would prefer not having and we are not in the business of publicly calling people out. If you ask us privately what we think about a costume, we will be honest and supportive.

 

With that said, let’s look at some of the more common reasons why costumes fall short of the mark for historical accuracy. First, there are “reenactorisms”. Loosely defined, reenactorisms are those practices (for our purposes, as applied to costume) which have their basis in what reenactors or self-styled “living historians” do rather than what was historically done. Perhaps it the particular practice began as someone’s imperfect interpretation of something historical or simply someone making something up because they either didn’t know any better or were too lazy to properly research it. Some examples of reenactorisms often seen at late 19th historical events are ball gowns and evening dresses worn during the day, “saloon girls”, and men wearing far too many weapons.

During my gunfighter days…yes, I’m guilty!

Next, closely related to reenactorisms are those practices that can arise from various sources and are now preserved by “groupthink”. Roughly defined, groupthink is:

…a psychological that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without consideration of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences or groups

While this phenomena is similar to reenactorisms, its scope is more limited to specific groups who, simply stated, “do things a certain way because that’s just the way it’s done” with no regard to whether or not the practice is historically justified. Any attempt to introduce new information that might compel change is extremely unwelcome.

Period hairstyles? Go to the source… 🙂

One example of this that we have witnessed when a small women’s group decided that the only way to portray historically correct hairstyles of the 1870s and 1880s was for everyone to wear wigs. Not only were the wig hair styles historically questionable, but the wigs themselves did not look like any known hairpieces of the era. Unfortunately for the larger organization, this small group’s unfortunate fashion choice then became the de facto standard for a much larger group in which they belonged to. At no point were the use of wigs questioned; people in the larger group simply uncritically adopted the style thinking that it somehow “must be right”. Finally, yes we were asked at several points what our opinion of this practice was and we answered honestly and provided historical documentation but it was largely disregarded. C’est la vie.

Another phenomenon is what I call the “cool factor.” Essentially is a matter of people superimposing their modern sensibilities onto historic portrayals (“Look, I’m a walking arsenal just like in the movie xxx!”). One example of this is when it comes to firearms and especially for those recreating the Old West. Often times, men (and some women) will arm themselves to the teeth (literally in some cases) with multiple pistols, knives, and maybe a shotgun or rifle. Hey, we get it, it’s fun and you get to look larger than life. I too have been guilty of this: when I first started coming to Tombstone, I used to strap on my pistols and a knife or two and walk up and down Allen Street like something out of the movie Tombstone. However, in reality even the most dangerous gunfighter/desperado types rarely carried as much weaponry as modern reenactors even when they were expecting a fight.

Other reasons for costumes lacking historical accuracy can range from lack of research to attempting to take shortcuts in materials and/or construction. While taking shortcuts can be somewhat forgivable, lack of research is not. Now granted, the word “research” sounds somewhat intimidating but it really isn’t- it simply means reading up on the subject (aka “doing your homework”). While information resources were more limited before the advent of the internet, this is no longer the case today and there is a wealth of resources, both online and hardcopy, on 19th Century clothing that are readily accessible. Understanding 19th Century clothing is not difficult but it does require some thought to translate it into recreating garments of the period.

Sometimes one has to study original garments to get those details just right…

As for shortcuts, it’s understandable that people would want to take shortcuts wherever possible and we do it ourselves. However, the thing to remember is that the garment still has to have the correct period lines and details (i.e., the look) and this requires an attention to detail. In terms of materials, this can be more tricky but bear in mind that 19th Century fabrics had very specific uses and that it’s not always possible to get good results with fabrics made from manufactured or synthetic fibers, with a few exceptions, of course ( Blog post for another day!).

Sourcing the right fabric- sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much…

We have identified some of the sources behind why historic costume can miss the mark in terms of accuracy and while by no means is this survey exhaustive, it does offer a cautionary tale for anyone with a sincere desire to recreate historic fashions of the 19th Century (or any other period for that matter). Essentially, to have the right look, one must not only inform themselves about the subject, but they must also be willing to alter their beliefs as to what is correct in light of new information. We can never achieve total accuracy for the simple reason that we are not living in the all-encompassing world of the late 19th Century; a world that is impossible to completely recreate for a variety of reasons. To one degree or another, how we approach historical costume is affected by our modern beliefs and the best that we can do is to work around them. In short, we’re all a work in progress.

Adam1

We always aim to be on target… 🙂

In the end, we believe that it’s essential to be true to oneself and understand and accept that one must constantly be learning, open to new ideas and to admit be ready to adapt and new information is discovered that changes how we view things. We looking forward to what the future brings.

Adventures In Restoration: The 1896 Dress Restoration & Recreation Project, Part 2

The process of creating a pattern off a disintegrating original dress was not a quick one and in reality, it originally got its start back in 2011. At the time, our only goal was to create a pattern and ultimately recreate the dress in a new, somewhat re-imagined form. At the same time, I was focused more in restoring the hat that had accompanied the dress- it was in more usable condition and wasn’t a complete write-off and that took a lot of our time. It wasn’t until 2019 with the our traveling to an 1890s-themed dance in Hjo, Sweden that the spur was given to bring the patterns we had drafted into a finished 1896 day dress. Fashion creation doesn’t always follow a straight path but in the end, we arrived at our destination with a felling of accomplishment. 🙂


Now that I was able to take a pattern of the original dress as discussed in our last post, we now move on to creating the reconstruction. Here’s the fashion plate for my silhouette inspiration along with what I ultimately made. Check out that amazing hem sweep!

Once I finally whittled down the components, it became easier to make a plan. Of course I chose one of the most difficult shades ever to match…but it came together. 🙂

Now, to take a step back…just in case you thought this process was glamorous…I was able to find a silk taffeta in a lilac that harmonized with the embroidery, so I decided to use that. I had dyed a piece of silk previously that matched the color perfectly, but I felt it was too matchy-matchy. The striae silk gave the gown depth. Cuffs and skirt trim is silk moire taffeta, that made everything “Zing.”

Nothing reads “1890s like Gigot sleeves…

Balancing the poufs in those amazing sleeves…there are boned sleeve supports and tartalan underneath, like little crinolines.
SCIENCE!

All the antique lace and trim has to be hand stitched, but it’s a lovely way to bond with this dress.

Hand finishing the dog leg opening at the waist and slipping in a gorgeous Art Nouveau buckle that I purchased from Elizabeth Emerson Designs. See how the sleeves are “deflated” without the sleeve supports? Sad little sleeves… 🙂

Hand slipping the skirt facings closed. And voila, the final product…Enjoying my “Anne of Green Gables” moment of puffed Gigot sleeves:

And now some pictures of the dress in action:

Sideways hug, so as not to smash my fashionable sleeves.
I forgot to bring the beautiful pleated organza frill for my neckline, so the next time I wear this…it will look so much nicer. But here we are, in Hjo, Sweden…one of the most beautiful places on earth. Counting our blessings and appreciating every minute spent with old and new friends

Sideways hug, so as not to smash my fashionable sleeves. I forgot to bring the beautiful pleated organza frill for my neckline, so the next time I wear this…it will look so much nicer. But here we are, in Hjo, Sweden…one of the most beautiful places on earth. Counting our blessings and appreciating every minute spent with old and new friends. 🙂

Now you can see how the gown nearly stands on it’s own…the parasol has a lovely original lace cover, just enough to allow sunshine through but offer protection.

How did I get that shape? It’s not just corsetry…it’s sleeve supports, hip padding, and proper petticoats. The breeze helps. 

My favorite image from the event, I love how the gown is in flight with the breeze! 

Happy Boxing Day!

We at Lily Absinthe would like to wish everyone a happy Boxing Day and commemorate the day, we found this interesting 1887 dress in holiday colors:

Day Dress, 1887; McCord Museum (M2009.62.1.1-2)

The dress is constructed from cream and garnet wool and has the characteristic late 1880s silhouette. What is especially striking about this dress are the alternating garnet and cream horizontal stripes on the under bodice and the garnet pouffs on each shoulder. This is a fairly simple design yet both colors are shown off nicely and the horizontal stripes is a unique feature that doesn’t show up too often of dresses of the 1880s. Just a bit of holiday cheer from us to you. 🙂

Parisian Color Trends For Fall 1889

Color is a major element in fashion styles and, as with style in general, it’s constantly in a state of flux. The situation was no different during the Nineteenth Century and while there was no entity like Pantone to constantly monitor the color trends, they were still noted. In the October 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, it was noted that:

The newest color of the season is a rich deep shade of chaudron-red, which has been christened Eiffel-color, after the famous tower of the Exhibition. It is supposed to be of the same hue as the red-painted iron-work of that stupendous edifice, since its tint has been mellowed and modified by the weather. Green, except in the dark-emerald shade, has gone entirely out of vogue. Yellow, in the warm golden tones, will be a good deal used for trimmings,

Probably the most interesting comment is about “chaudron-red” which is a mash-up of French and English for “cauldron red” (or Eiffel Red) and it describes the original color that the Eiffel Tower was painted when it was first erected for the Paris Exhibition of 1889. The original paint was meant as a protective coating and had a copper-red color because of its active ingredient, iron oxide, which gives the paint its protective quality, preventing rust to the steel that made up the Eiffel Tower’s construction (even to this day, iron oxide paint is used for treating steel beams). So what did this look like? Probably something like this:

Interestingly enough, recently, when it’s time to repaint the Eiffel Tower in 2021, it has been suggested that it be repainted in the original chaudron-red, similar to the shade depicted above. So far, the French Ministry of Culture has not made a decision…

Besides “Eiffel Red,” it’s noted that green is completely out except in a dark emerald shade, perhaps along these lines:

And for yellow something like these:

And now well things together with some examples of the above colors at work, starting with this evening dress from Maison Worth:

Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.20)

James McCreary & Co., Visiting Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of Cuff

Both of the above dress examples incorporate many of the colors noted in Peterson’s although we must note that there are also plenty of examples where other colors were used; in fashion there’s never any absolutes, just broad generalizations. We hoped you have enjoyed this brief excursion into trending colors of 1889 and stay tuned for more in the future. 🙂